It’s a wondrous thing, getting to work in the U.S. military. Sure, to each their own, Army does its thing, the Marines, the Special Forces, the Navy. I always wanted to be in the Air Force, but one part in particular. I am… was, actually, the Gunnery Sergeant aboard the AC-130U Spooky Gunship. See, all that wonder goes out the window when you’ve seen what I’ve seen.
Those of you who do not know anything about the Spectre/Spooky family of fixed-wing gunships need a little background. Many people know about the C-130 Hercules cargo plane built by Lockheed, a turboprop plane that has been adapted for a lot of roles, mostly cargo. What makes the Spooky special? Not too much, just the 25mm Gatling gun, 40mm Bofors cannon and 105mm howitzer sticking out the port side, that and the infrared computer targeting system. If you think that a fighter jet is an angel of death on the battlefield, the 130U is the angel that will fly in a circle, about 7,000 feet over your head, and blasts the living shit out of you, or anything unfortunate enough to be within a block of you.
Being on the gunnery crew my main job is to direct or fire the weapons, but my primary job was to fire the 105mm, the big gun. That baby has the firepower to level an area the size of a Walmart parking lot; the shells are so big that the aircraft can usually only carry nine, or a dozen at most. Why would anyone need that kind of kill-power, you may ask? America, that’s why.
No, seriously, think of it this way. We have some of the most expensive equipment on the planet, and our style of fighting is tuned to invoke the most enemy casualties while saving as many friendlies as possible. If that means using a missile that costs more than a nice car, or 100 of those cars, instead of putting friendlies in a firefight, that’s fine. My job, my crew’s job, is to make sure that as many of our buddies on the ground make it out alive, and, as a bonus, we get to use the equivalent firepower of a naval destroyer, all on one plane.
The American dream, or so it seemed, to work on-board that plane. I was saving American lives on the ground, firing from a mile away at enemies that had no clue we were there. All they could do was run, and they could only get as far as how long it takes to reload a cannon. But part of me wishes I had never signed up. I’ve seen too much now.
Due to the nature of the operation, I can’t tell you exactly where we were, just know that it was likely where Bush had put so many of our boys in a war that didn’t need to happen, and certainly did not need to be ended the way it did. Place starts with an A, shit went down in early 2000 a.c., do the math. It was not too long after 9/11, and most of the personnel still had their fervor for revenge, we wanted to go in there and kick some ass. That was the Army’s job, the Marines, and the Special forces. Me, I was seated up in a non-pressurized aircraft sitting behind a gun that could knock God on his ass.
To be honest I don’t remember where we were exactly, and it wasn’t my job to know. All I needed to know was where the friendlies were, and where to expect hostiles. A lot of people think we see things in all green, that’s not how our night vision works. Military night vision puts everything in black and white, where hot bodies glow bright and white against the black, colder ground and buildings. Makes it hard to distinguish uniforms, which is why all our troops are tagged. So I watched as our boys got out of their HUMVEEs and started their long walk.
The main target, the area where the two Marine squads were storming, was this complex nestled at the base of these adobe-looking hills; pretty well camouflaged by brush and trees. It looked like a castle, with a set of walls, a big gate, and several towering buildings overlooking the outside. I don’t remember why the troops were going in there, in fact, according to what I could hear of their chatter, they weren’t sure either. But none of us, at least those on-hand, needed to worry, we were going in to take out targets. You may think that having the Spooky overhead was a bit overkill, but like I explained, we were there to make it as easy for the Marines as we could.
Everyone on-board the craft was in direct contact with the teams below, and they were in contact with us via squad leaders. I could hear the jarheads talking about nothing in particular, just how this was “another job” and how the hostiles inside did not stand a chance. Sitting behind the collective firepower of a squadron of tanks, I was apt to agree. I struck up a conversation with the first squad leader, a guy named Amos.
“Having fun down there Charlie 1?”
“Don’t you know it, Spook. Approaching the target zone now.”
I heard other voices, random Marines. “It’d be just as easy to get them from here, Spooky’s got the firepower to level the place, and we could all be home in time for lunch.”
“You do know they’re serving tacos again, right?”
“Well, maybe we can have some fun out here anyway, get back in time for dessert.”
I could hear a few chuckles before Amos growled “Alright, alright, tape it up, guys.” The Marines were coming to within firing distance of the compound. I told the boys to be ready. As I zoomed in, I could see that everything was about to go down.
Several glaring white forms showed up on the walls, filling out via doors and climbing up ladders. I saw them huddling behind ramparts, and each of them were armed. I called in to the leaders below to expect gunfire. You may ask, why didn’t I light them up to kingdom come already? Rules of engagement, that’s why. Simply put, you do not ever fire unless fired upon. It’s how we tell friendlies from hostiles, how we try to incur as few civilian casualties as we can. This goes for the Marines too, but I could see their bright forms spreading out, crouching their way towards the walls, ready to dash for cover. One of the defenders was waving his arms, seemingly gesturing to the ground forces, but I could not hear a word, over a mile away.
Over the comms Amos was yelling in the native language. “Spook, they’re screaming at us but have made no effort to fire. They don’t seem too hostile, actually.”
“I dunno, Sergeant, that’s a lot of guns pointing at you. What’re they saying?”
“Not sure, it’s a bit far out to tell but they’re saying something to the effect that they want us to leave.”
“I don’t recall anything in the Intel about having that option.”
“I know, I told them. But… he says that for our own safety we need to go away.”
I could not see any of their guns being pointed at the Marines yet, but every single man was armed, a mix of Russian-made AK-74 assault rifles, G3’s, some older 47’s, and a few RPGs. But all of them were hiding, not yet aiming at the ground forces. “They don’t seem too hostile at the moment, but they’re packing heat.”
“He’s not backing down. He said this is our last chance. How’s the view up there?”
I took count of at least thirty gunmen, and more were climbing up, easily outnumbering the dozen Marines. “Thirty possible contacts, get your boys down and ready, they look ready to dig in.”
No sooner had I said this, that I immediately saw the flashes of white at the end of gun barrels all over the walls, but I could not hear the gunfire from over a mile away, so I called in to the Marines to confirm that they were under attack. I heard a clear confirmation from Amos.
“Everyone, down! Spook, they’re throwing everything they got at us! We are under fire! Repeat, we are under fire!”
The gunfight was on, and all the safeties were off.
The Marines were all lying prone, taking accurate shots and pegging enemies on the wall with precise accuracy, but they were heavily outgunned and the somewhat inaccurate, constant small arms fire was getting too close for comfort. The Marines confirmed targets, and now it was our turn.
I could hear the belching growl of the Gatling gun firing at nearly 4,000 rounds per minute, and could just see the white streaks like a swarm of bees falling on the enemy. The hail of lead tore them to pieces, knocking them off the walls like target dummies and tearing chunks of adobe from the walls. I could not help but stare when I saw more enemies charging up to their deaths, they were not going to retreat.
“God damn it, Spook, we got two tinkers coming out on top of us!”
I heard the call from Amos just in time to see two battered pickup trucks with hastily mounted machine guns peeling out the gate towards the boys on the ground. We call those technicals, and while they may not look like much, those Russian PK machine guns on the back are a deadly threat to infantry. Lucky for the Marines, we were able to respond with far-beyond-equal force.
I authorized the use of the Bofors cannon, two rounds per truck. The gun boomed like a sledgehammer, and I saw the bigger streaks falling like lightning bolts. The first burst of two rounds, a double tap, hit the lead truck dead center, instantly turning it into a giant, white fireball of burning fuel and twisted steel. The other truck must have had a quick driver, as he swerved to avoid his obliterated buddy, causing him to just barely dodge the incoming shells, but to my surprise he then kept driving towards the Marines. These insurgents were fighting to the death, and in that moment I could only wonder if what they were protecting in the compound was worth it. A quick adjustment, and two more shells finished the truck off.
The Spooky provided additional fire support with the 25mm, but the Marines had most of the heat taken off of them. They made their way to the wall of the compound, and through the gate that had been blown open by a hit from the Bofors. The friendly units were too close for comfort now, it was up to them to clear the compound, which they did with amazing speed. As ineffective as the militia were, they fought fiercely, and the Marines did not manage to take any of them prisoner.
Our orbit now took us where I could see the largest building at the back of the compound, farthest from the gate. It was heavily defended with two mounted machine guns, but an earlier strike of Gatling fire had rendered them inoperative. What was strange about the building was the single door, a hulking thing built like a vault door. The “gatehouse”, as I call it, seemed to be just that, made to house a gate and to keep people out. If I knew then what I know now…
The Marines found a switch to open the door, it slid sideways and one squad went in. After that I lost sight of them, and kept in contact over the radio. Here’s what I heard… how I wish I had not.
Amos was breathing hard as his squad went in. “Spook, you should see what we got in here.”
“What do you see?”
I was fed an image from his helmet camera, and I leaned towards the small monitor at my station. I had assumed that the building was some sort of garage, as it was not much bigger than a small hanger, but Amos’s camera showed a long ramp leading down, underground. The tunnel was big enough to drive a tank through, and it was dark (we must have hit the power in the opening bombardment).
“Wow, they really dug in here.”
“No shit. I think we’ll lose comms down once we’re down there, the walls look pretty thick.”
“Roger, Charlie 1 you are cleared to advance.”
The image cut out, and all I could do was settle back. Technically by now the gunship’s job was done, and we should’ve been flying back to base, but we had been given orders to remain on station, which was fine with me. Now I wish we had just flown home.
My attention must’ve wandered because the next thing I remember was some Marine from Squad 1 was screaming into my earpiece. He was panicked and out of breath, his voice an octave or two higher than a Marine’s voice should go. “Shit! Shit! Spooky, do you read! Come in, damn it!”
I shook my head clear and tried to speak calmly. “Marine, what’s going on, where’s your…”
He cut me off like I had not even said anything. “Aren’t you fucking listening?! Use it!”
“The big fucking gun!”
My face must have gone pale, the Bofors gunner looked at me with widened eyes. I still tried to keep my cool. “Son, I’m not authorized to use the 105, what the hell do you want me to shoot at?”
“Fuck your authorization! We’re all gonna die if you don’t… “
His voice trailed off, and I could now make out noise in the background. His boots clopping on the floor, his heavy breath, and a loud crashing sound, like a semi truck driving through a wall. “No, no, no no!”
After I heard that sound, I felt all the blood run from my cheeks like someone had thrown snow in my face. I can only describe it as a mix of a lot of ferocious beasts, and yet they all sound like mice compared to it. It was a roar, a roar mixed with a buzzsaw, and the shriek of a trapped cougar. I could just hear the last scream of the Marine before a loud racket made me throw my headset off, that awful noise when someone drops the microphone on the hard floor.
I saw that everyone’s face in the gunnery department had gone deathly white, but no one left their stations. I jammed my headgear back on and looked back down the sight.
The Marines in Squad Two had surrounded the massive gate, and had their weapons out, but were slowly backing away. I listened in on their leader, a big black guy whose name I can never remember.
“Everyone, hold position, safeties off, keep trying to get Squad One on the…”
I heard everything go silent, and this hulking beast of a man let out a shrill gasp.
“What the… what the fuck?! How is that possible?!”
He was trying hard to stay calm, but it was not the tone of his voice that scared me.
I could see the massive door, built to withstand a tank blast, bulging outwards, like a bubble about to pop, and whatever was pounding it was hitting the door with such force that I could hear it over the comms, like the deepened tolling of a distant bell.
And then, as soon as it started, the bulging stopped, as did the thunderous pounding, and I could hear the squad leader trying to steady his confused voice.
“It… I… what the…?”
His voice was cut off by static, as the door flew like a massive shuriken, immediately crushing two of the Marines. In my opinion, they were the lucky ones, after what I saw next.
It must have been so hot, this massive, glowing white blur came rushing out of the now vacant doorway, almost as tall as the gatehouse. It was shaped like a boulder, must’ve been nothing but muscle, like a horrifying Hulk. All I could see of it was the outline, the outline that towered over the remaining four Marines.
I heard their pitiful gunfire over the comms, but the thing was barely affected, I saw it backhand one of the Marines in one swing, smashing the elite soldier into a harmless bag of broken bones and crushed organs. It lunged forward, grabbing another, and with the Marine clenched in its gargantuan fist, pounded a massive hole in the wall of a building, and punched the ground several times. I did not see it drop a body, he must have been reduced to a pulp.
The last two did not run, but to be fair, they barely had time to even turn. It came down on one them like a mountain, crushing him under its fists, and it kept smashing. I saw it stop, and slowly turn to the last, poor Marine. I could barely make out his voice over his choked, tearful, final gasp.
It swooped down, grabbing him by the arms and legs, and with barely any effort ripped the Marine in half at the waist, like a child pulling the legs from an ant. It swung the bisected parts over its head, and threw them to the ground.
I must have done it on a reflex. I could not feel my body, I could only guess how I looked, with my jaw hanging and my eyes so wide as to nearly pop from my skull. Before I realized what happened, my hand had clenched, and the aircraft shook with the sound of a clap of thunder right next to my ears.
I saw the huge, white blur of the 105mm shell, streaking towards the target with pinpoint accuracy. It seemed to glide in slow motion, but in reality, even at this range, it only took two seconds.
It struck the thing dead center; everything in the sights, the bodies, the buildings, and the thing vanished inside a small mushroom cloud of fire, dust, and shrapnel. I saw the nearest building collapse, the lower level blasted in on itself. A second later, I thought I heard the thump of the impact, but I could not hear anything else. I could not tell if my fellow gunners were screaming, muttering, or trying to get my attention. I could not hear the comforting drone of the four turboprop engines, or the beeping of equipment. I did feel my heart pounding in my chest, like the thing’s massive fist had pounded on that door, like the Marine’s hearts must have pounded in their short lives.
I barely reacted when I felt my commander’s hand on my shoulder. He was as pale as the rest of us, and he was likely clenching my shoulder to steady his own trembling grip. As the dust and debris settled, I could see almost nothing was left, nothing but a large, bright mass, a thankfully still one, and a crumpled building.
Surprisingly, I never got in trouble, but you can bet your ass I handed in my resignation and shipped home quicker than you can say “Hell to the fuckin’ no”. Some things should not be seen. Some things should not be let out, I know that now. I saw six men die, and six more died on my watch, yet all I was able to do was shit bricks at 7,000 feet. There ain’t therapy for that kind of stuff. That’s what PTSD really is, it’s the human soul breaking at the seams, seams pulled by stress that the soul was not made to be subjected to.
Yes, I still have nightmares every now and then, but it’s during the day when it’s the worst. Know why? Because I think back to those last few seconds before I went to cry in the back of the plane. Those last few seconds of looking down that gun-sight. Those last few seconds, where I swear, to this day, that I saw that thing still moving.
It’s a wondrous thing, getting to work in the U.S. military. Sure, to each their own, Army does its thing, the Marines, the Special Forces, the Navy. I always wanted to be in the Air Force, but one part in particular. I am… was, actually, the Gunnery Sergeant aboard the AC-130U Spooky Gunship. See, all that wonder goes out the window when you’ve seen what I’ve seen.
My family has lived all over Southern California, from San Diego to Los Angeles and back again. For a few years we lived outside of Los Angeles, in the valley north of the city, an area called Valencia. People were mainly friendly here. It was an upper middle class neighborhood known for its exceptional schools and family values. It was the kind of place where you could ride your bike around at night and no one worried about anything bad ever happening.
It was also a place known for its rolling hills and canyons. There were as many bike trails as streets in the town. My friends and I used to go explore the canyons at night on our bikes, just to see the night sky and feel the cool breeze against our faces.
We’d ride our bikes outside of the track homes and explore the vast, never-ending trails that stretched into canyons and the openness of the desert. One night my friends and I took a trail off the beaten path, one that was a little less worn than our normal bike paths. It was late, around eleven, but it was summer so I didn’t’ have a curfew. Like I said, it was a pretty safe place to live.
We rode out of town, past the glow of the city lights until the darkness was heavy and thick, and we couldn’t see much besides the moon and the faint glow of the city below us. We rode our bikes deeper and deeper into the canyon until we came across a giant white light shooting up into the sky.
Needless to say, we were intrigued. It looked like someone was trying to reach space, like a giant telescopic flashlight was bouncing from here to Jupiter. Naturally, we decided to explore the mysterious light.
We made our way towards the light, as if it beckoned us to come forward. There was a clearing in the canyon, a large open space where the light was coming from. My heart pounded violently in my chest. I took a deep breath and stared out into the darkness.
Soon we came upon a wooded area full of small trees and shrubs. We noticed in the middle of this tiny forest was a huge fire, a bonfire that burned high and bright and to the side of it was the light shining up into the night sky. We approached closer still, abandoning our bikes by the path, slowly tip-toeing our way towards the fire. And that’s when heard the chanting. It was a low, guttural chant that came from the fire. As we got closer we saw that we were not alone.
People dressed in black cloaks surrounded the fire on all sides. They were chanting in some language I couldn’t recognize. There had to be fifty of them. We were close enough to see that the cloaks were long robes with hoods covering their faces. Everyone’s robe was black except for one person whose robe was crimson red. And then we saw the girl.
There was a large post in the ground with a young girl tied to it. We could see the look on her face. She was scared to death. The man in the red cloak held a large leather bound book. He circled around the fire and placed the book on a pedestal and then picked up a large knife. He walked towards the girl, the knife glittering off the glow of the fire.
That’s when my friend took a step forward, placing all his weight on a dry tree branch. It cracked like thunder. Immediately, the cloaked figures turned towards us. Without a moment’s hesitation, they all started to run. We didn’t’ wait to see what would happen. We took off after our bikes, running without looking back. The chanting increased in our ears—they were closing in on us.
We hopped on our bikes and took off back the way we came. I turned around to catch one final glimpse. All I saw was a crowd of hooded figures standing at the edge of the wooded area. They watched us ride away.
My dad got another job a few months later and we moved away from the valley. But what we saw that night has never left me. Why were they there? Why was there a girl tied up in front of the fire? There were tons of unanswered questions, the kind that make you stay away at night.
The most disturbing thing, however, happened about month after we moved. One day in our new house I accidentally found a box in our attic. I was looking for some of my books that went missing in the move when I bumped my head on a beam. A long slender box from up above fell on top of me.
I sat down and opened the box and took out a number of peculiar items, things I’d never seen before. There was a pentagram necklace and a small black journal filled front to back with notes. There was also a picture of me and my friends from our old neighborhood on our bikes.
I took the items out and laid them on the ground next to me. And then I saw it. On the bottom of the box was a large zippered clothes bag, like the kind you get from the Laundromat.
I unzipped the bag. Inside was a long, black hooded cloak. My dad’s initials were etched right on the front.
Credit: Stephen Pate
She gave him the key as soon as he had walked in the door. It had been in a small box, wrapped up with a bow.
He tried not to show his concern as he was acutely aware she was waiting expectantly for him to say something.
“Well, what do you think?” She asked.
A bit sudden, don’t you think? came to his mind, but he knew better then to say that. They’d only been dating for a month and here she was giving him a key to her house. Still, he guessed there was no set time for this kind of thing.
“Great,” he said, struggling to find an adequate response. “Now I can come over and watch your big screen anytime!” Trish rolled her eyes and gave him pouty lips until he gave her a kiss. He tried a simpler tact.
“Thanks hon.” She pecked his lips, grinning. “Get your coat off and relax. I’m going to get the grub,” she said, then ran to the kitchen. She had a quick enthusiasm he thought was adorable, somewhat childlike.
He did as she said, listening to her in the kitchen; she made the commotion of ten professional cooks in there, instead of just one. Metal clanking against metal. Bowls slamming on counter tops. She started singing softly as she worked. He collapsed on the couch.
“Hey, hon?” she called from the kitchen.
“Uh, yeah?” he said hesitantly. His immediate fear was that she was going to follow the giving-of-the-key by telling him she loved him. That would not be his idea of starting the evening off right. He quickly ran through his options.
Tell her I love her back? No good. I’m a terrible liar. She would see threw me like a window.
Tell her I think things are going too fast? No, she’s in the room of the house filled with the most knives.
Oh! Tell her—
“Can you light the candle?”
“What?” He had been so engrossed in his thoughts, he honestly didn’t hear what she said.
“Can you light the candle,” she said again.
“Candle?” It was so far out of context of where his mind was, that at first he honestly found the word to be exotic, somehow. He tasted the word again, softly. “Candle.”
“Yeah, CAN-DLE. It’s by the TV,” she called out, sounding either concerned, or slightly annoyed. “I’m surprised you haven’t noticed it, yet.”
He turned and sure enough, there on the entertainment unit was a candle roughly the size of a very small refrigerator.
“Whoa! How did I not see that?”
“I know, right? It’s so big it needs six wicks just to burn the whole thing.”
He approached it. It was sitting on the end of the TV unit, in a spot the designer obviously designated for a very large potted plant or for giant speakers.
“Where did you get this thing?” he asked, thinking he had never seen this much wax in his life. It came up to his knees. It was a pale white and he could smell a hint of vanilla coming from it. He hated vanilla.
“Online,” Trish said and went back to her singing.
He went to pick it up, curious to know how much it weighed; but before he touched it, he pulled his hand back, feeling a familiar sense of dread he hadn’t felt in years.
There was a time in his childhood when he loved watching scary movies with his friends. They were always impressed with him because no matter what movie they put on – of course without their parents knowledge – he never lost it. He never jumped when the mass murderer popped on screen to the surprise of the hapless blonde; when the blood and guts would fly and his friends were screaming their heads off, he would be sitting calmly, eating a snack, or more likely laughing his head off at them.
But something he never told his friends was that every night for the following week after watching the fright flick of choice, he wouldn’t be able to sleep. He might doze off for an hour or two as dawn approached, but most of the night, he would be cowering under his covers, afraid to peek his head out; he desperately wanted to peek his head out, too, because he would always be hot, sweating and claustrophobic. But he couldn’t. He knew that as soon as he did, he would see eyes peering over the top of his Darkwing Duck bedsheets. Or hear a creak and see a hand pop out of his closet door. He would feel all the fear he never felt when the lights were on and he was surrounded by his friends. In the dark, he felt watched and terrified.
Now, fifteen years later, he felt that same fear envelope him like a wave. Sweat burst out on the back of his neck and he glanced quickly over his shoulder, convinced he had see something peering at him from behind the couch.
There was nothing there. He looked at the overly large candle in front of him, feeling all the fear and apprehension of his childhood. He realized he didn’t want to be near it, let alone light it.
Come on. This is ridiculous. I’m not a kid anymore! But still he felt fear as he reached out to grab the match book that was sitting next to it. He moved quickly, like when he would reach for the light switch as a kid; hoping you could be quicker then the monster who would inevitably be trying to clamp it’s talons on your wrist.
“Everything okay out there?” she asked, noticing the silence. He realized that he had been sitting there for some time.
“Just wool gathering,” he said.
“Less thinking, more lighting,” Trish said with a smile in her voice. “I’m almost done here!” She went back to sing/humming her little tune. The sound comforted him, knowing there was someone else here. He grabbed the match out of the book and popped it alight against the black strip on the back.
He touched the tip against the first wick, one last premonition of a leathery hand popping out of the centre to latch onto his arm. The first wick lit without any paranormal activity, so he began lighting the rest, each one getting easier.
His fear drained away as he was lighting the final one and he absently thought that a monster would wait for this moment to strike—
He jumped back as the last wick caught and blew a loud spark. He landed hard on his back, feeling the hand that had been holding the match going numb. Trish rushed into the room at the sound, either of the pop of the sparks, or of him falling to the ground.
“Are you okay? What happened?” She was holding a bowl of popcorn as she looked down on him and he thought for a second that she was going to spill it all over him in her concern. She looked very worried.
“I’m fine,” he said before he knew if he really was. He shook his hand, trying to get circulation back in it. He looked up and saw that she was waiting. “One of the wicks popped, that’s all. Probably had some material imbedded in the string that ignited. No biggie.”
“Oh honey,” she said, obviously not catching the ‘no biggie’ part. He let her kiss him all better, kneeling over him with a curtain of hair.
“All better?” she asked when she was done.
“Lots,” he said with a smile. “Thanks babe. I’m fine. Need any help in there?”
“Nope. Almost done. Get the movie ready, h’uh?” With that, she got up and went back to the kitchen.
He sat up and tossed the book of matches, which he had held onto during his fall, onto the cabinet and just looked at the flame of the candle for a few minutes, enjoying the mesmerizing quality of fire.
He shook his hand out again. It was mostly back to normal. He steadied himself to get up and that’s when he saw it.
With all the flames going the light was casting a white glow down the length of it’s mass, but there was a shadow in the midst of the candle. He couldn’t make out much, and there was certainly no reason for it to concern him, but it did just the same.
“All ready!” Trish said coming out of the kitchen. She had a giant tray in her hands filled to the brim with snack food and beverages for them to enjoy with the movie. Being a cook, she also had a long history as a waitress, so she handled the tray with style. She frowned at him, still crouched by the candle.
“You okay?” She asked, concerned again.
“Yeah, sorry. Just lost track of time watching the fire. It’s pretty mesmerizing.”
“Okay. Movie time.” He got up and helped her with the snacks. The flame burned the wax down all night. When he left later that night, there was a good sized divot forming.
He forgot about the spark and the thing inside the candle during the movie. He didn’t think about it again until he went to bed that night. Then he got to thinking about what could have been inside. It wasn’t so bizarre a concept that warranted a sleepless night, but the dark has a way of robbing even the sanest mind of rest. The worry itself caused him to worry.
He also thought that kids had an advantage over adults when it comes to being scared. Unlike kids, adults know that covers and bedsheets don’t stop monsters.
“Hey. It’s me,” Trish said. Stephen gripped his phone tighter and his stomach lurched. He looked around the studio to see if anybody was listening, but they were busy checking levels and setting up the mics for the next read. He cleared his throat.
“Hi!” he responded. “How are you?”
“I’m good. Things are good. Working at a new kitchen.” He nodded, but didn’t say anything. He knew about her new job, but didn’t want her to find out he’d been asking mutual friends about her. He felt too much like a stalker.
Silence from Trish’s end. She didn’t ask how he was. That was understandable. He had been a bit-
-the last while they had been together.
“So, you think we can—“
“Look, I just called to ask if you could do me a favour.”
“Sure! Anything,” he said, rolling his eyes at the eagerness he heard in his voice.
“Do you still have the key to my apartment?”
He hesitated. He felt like admitting he did was like saying he still knew the code to her bank account, or the password for her online diary or something. “Um, yeah. Still on my keyring. Didn’t throw it away or anything. I haven’t even realized I still—”
“Good. I’m sorry to ask, but can you go to my place?”
“You want me to come over?” He perked up slightly at this. He had never been very good at breakups, even when he was the one who had done the breaking up.
“I’m not there. I’m in Florida for a work seminar.” She sighed, pushing on. “I left a few days ago and I just now got to thinking that I don’t remember blowing out one of my candles.”
If his stomach had lurched before, now it gave a full out lunge. “The candle?” He pinned the phone between his ear and right shoulder so he could gently scratch the bandages on his left hand. The stitches were ready to come out soon, but they still itched.
“Yeah. You remember the big one I had by the TV? The one with six wicks? I was getting ready and should have blown it out, but I wanted it going till I left – you know how I love my vanilla – and was going to get it on my way out, but it slipped my mind.”
He could hear her getting a grip on herself. “Can you just go down to my place and check to see if there’s a smoking crater where my house used to be? I’m not going to be home till tomorrow morning. I’d really appreciate it.” She said this somewhat sweetly, the way she used to ask him to get the high things off shelves that she couldn’t reach, always rewarding him with a kiss. It still made him weak in the knees and he forgot what she was asking him to do and only heard the promise of a kiss.
“Yeah, sure. I’m just heading out for lunch, so I can swing by your place.” He waited for her gratitude.
“Oh, and while you’re there, you can leave the spare key under one of my plants in the mudroom.”
His belly liquified in disappointment. “Leave the key?”
“Yup,” a little irritation in her voice. “Just under one of the pots. I gotta go, Stephen. The next session is starting. Thank you so much for checking. I didn’t have anyone else to call. Bye.” She hung up.
He listened to the silence on the other end, thinking how she didn’t used to need to apologize for asking him to do things for her.
Then his mind turned to the candle, by the TV, in the house that he hadn’t been to in weeks and this time his liquified gut froze over in fear.
He slowly let himself into the house.
He stood in the mudroom for what felt like twenty minutes, but which was more likely two, working himself up to going in.
Something felt wrong about the house. Or rather, something felt wrong IN the house. Something felt different. He had never had the sensation of feeling a presence before, but he sure felt it now. He felt blocked in on all sides; he felt eyes on him, as if his every move were under close scrutiny. He could hear laughing children outside, playing at recess. Sounds which should have comforted him; but instead he just felt alone under the gaze of those eyes.
It had been a while since he had seen the candle. Two days before he ended their relationship. Things had gotten too complicated. He had told himself that if the thing hadn’t done anything to hurt her yet, that probably meant it couldn’t.
What a load of self-centred rationalizing, he thought. I bailed because I was afraid.
He had spent the previous several visits to the house watching in slow, drawn out horror as the candle burned down inch by inch, the wax vapourizing into thin air, revealing more and more of what Stephen thought to be his own insanity.
He didn’t go in. Not yet. He was too busy reliving his fear.
The single eye opened in two parts. First the outer lids, then an inner set. Each trailing a viscus goo. A star shaped pupil surveyed the room wildly.
They were watching a movie, again. It seemed to be their favourite date night. With both of them snuggling on the couch, he glanced over and saw it happen. He had been feeling a sense of mounting foreboding all evening. He didn’t looked over because of any movement. The thing had not given any signs of life since Stephen first saw it. The candle was huge, so she must have been burning it twenty-four/seven to go through it so quickly.
It hadn’t moved a bit and he had become convinced it was just a statue or something. Although he couldn’t figure out why Trish couldn’t see it, or refused to admit she could see it. He figured he hadn’t discussed it with her because of a fear that maybe he was just seeing things.
He had looked over as the foreboding built to a point of crescendo, like a balloon that you know only is seconds away from popping as it expands in your mouth.
The eye must have been held shut by the mucus that trailed the lids. He could almost hear the smacking sound as they pulled apart. The eye had turned wildly for a moment and then the oddly shaped pupil rested immediately on him, as if after some disorientation it had found it’s target.
His body had given an involuntary jump, startling Trish into a scream.
“What’s wrong with you?” was the first thing out of her mouth after the scream. She was breathing heavy, but not as bad as him.
He was staring back at the creature in the candle, into the eye which was looking back at him. He didn’t seem to realize she was there.
“Honey.” Hesitation. “Are you okay?”
He looked at her, all composer gone out of his body. He was shaking pretty badly. He extended his finger at it, which jerked spastically as he did so.
“D-don’t you see it?” he said in a breathy whisper. He looked back at the candle. “How can you not see it?”
He was barely aware that she had followed his gaze. He was too busy trying not to freak out. The shape of the pupil was the worst part. He thought he might have seen some sea animals with a star shaped eye, but this was certainly no fish.
“Stephen,” she said, her voice strained, as if she were choosing her words carefully. “I don’t see anything strange. What do you see?”
At first he didn’t seem to hear her.
His head whirled to her, again, as if he had forgotten she was there.
“Nothing! Never mind.” He got up, turning off the TV. “Look, lets go for a drive, h’uh?” He plucked his keys out of his pocket and headed for the door. “Get some ice cream?”
“It’s chilly out,” she reminded him.
“Well, then we’ll get some chilly,” he said with an almost frantic laugh. He looked at the candle again and the thing seemed to wink at him, as if acknowledging his joke. He jumped again, feeling like he needed to vomit. He turned and rushed out the door, saying over his shoulder, “I’ll meet you in the car,” and was gone.
She met him a few minutes later and the night air wasn’t the only thing that was chilly. The conversation was stilted. He would not answer her questions and any conversation ended in an irritated silence from both of them.
He dropped her off early and sped off back to his apartment.
She watched him drive away, concern in her face.
He pushed and watched the door glide open on its own, his key-
not my key for long
-still in the lock. He looked deeply into the living room just beyond the door and prepared himself for the bright glow of the candle, which would be illuminating the creature like a halo.
Actually, it’s been so long-
I’m not going in!
-the candle probably looks-
Don’t let it in!
-like a sinister wax skirt on-
Get out of here!
–whatever it is. Flames glowing brightly against it’s-
Why am I here? I’m so scared!
But the house was dark. It was an overcast day outside and there was a gloom even in the brightest parts of the room. Over by the TV, in the corner, it was almost blotted out with darkness.
Great! She didn’t leave the candle burning after all! Isn’t that just dandy news. I hope I can still salvage enough of my lunch break to get some food. But he wasn’t hungry. His stomach felt like it had shrivelled up to the size of a prune. He thought about all the things that had happened the past few weeks. He absently rubbed at the bandages on his left hand; the ones that had just finished healing, ready to have the stitches removed. He had done it to himself, but the creature was to blame. He wouldn’t let it in his head again!
Okay, no fire. I’m out of here. He reached in to grab the door handle, close it and get out of there. When he was far enough away, his hunger would come back. He would grab some food, bring a coffee back for Tim, then get back to recording some funny voices for some funny cartoons. He would continue doing a great job, win an award, meet a girl, get married, live happily ever after and most importantly, never think about candles, or creatures that might live inside them, again. Everything would be alright.
He stepped inside and closed the door behind him, leaving all the plants and shoes and knick knacks alone in the mudroom.
They spent time either out or at his place after that and things got better. He never explained what had freaked him out that night, and strangely, she never asked.
About two weeks later, he suggested that he make dinner for her. She was shocked when he said yes to just staying in at her place. He said he would go over to her place while she was still at work and get dinner started. She thought it was a great idea.
Stephen let himself in with his key, carrying a bag full of groceries. He didn’t really remember what he had purchased; he had kind of been distractedly throwing things into his cart, thinking about the candle. He needed to see it again. Make sure it was real. He had begun to doubt himself and that was no way to live. Plus, he couldn’t just leave it there. If he wasn’t just imagining things-
–then he had to do something about it. Trish was actually living with that thing!
He walked to the kitchen, avoiding looking toward the entertainment unit, plopped the groceries down and stood there, thinking. Deciding whether to make the food before going into the living room, or just get it over with. Part of him hoped that the thing was gone and a part, that didn’t want to face a life knowing he was loosing his mind, hoped it would still be there. Although what was worse? Knowing you were insane, or only being afraid of the possibility? He brushed away a fly that had landed on his ear.
He walked into the kitchen, eyes averted, looking at the couch. He stood in the middle of the room, tensed and turned.
Another two or three inches had been burned away. Lines of dripping wax covered the sides and the divot in the middle had deepened.
In the centre of the divot was a greenish-grey lump with scaly skin. A lump that Stephen immediately identified as a head, though not like anything he had ever seen before. It’s eyes were strange. They sat on top of the head, kind of like a crocodile; and they both peered up at him now. The left one flicked sporadically around the room, as if in search of something, but the right one stayed on him constantly.
This is a bigger issue then her saying she can’t see it, Stephen thought. It’s sticking out far enough now that it’s got to be getting in the way when she lights the back wicks. He would be interested in seeing her actually light the candle.
“How had she not seen you?” No response. They both just stared.
After a moment of this odd game of ‘look away’, he broke the gaze when he moved to brush another fly – or the same one? They all look the same to me! – off his nose. That’s when he noticed that the room wasn’t silent; it was actually quite noisy with the sounds of buzzing insects. They were all over the room, landing, flying away. He didn’t know how it was possible. Trish hated mess and disorganization almost as much as she hated bugs. Not a spec of food was laying anywhere in the house. For crying out loud, she washed the crumb guard on her toaster oven after every use! What could possibly be attracting all these flies.
“Do you have anything to do with them?” he said to the lump. Nothing happened. One eye went on twirling. The other went on staring.
He had been walking into the kitchen, but turned back to the candle at the sound. Nothing. No movement. Just the star shaped pupil staring from it’s wax prison. The unreality of the situation washed over him then. He didn’t know what to do. Nothing really prepared a person for something like this. What were you supposed to do when you found a living creature in your girlfriend’s candle?
He walked to the kitchen to get supper started.
Again, he glanced around, but he couldn’t see what had caused it. He was turning to the kitchen again when he noticed a fly hovering in front of his face. It buzzed there momentarily. He swatted it away. It evaded his strike, hovered a moment, then turned in a lazy arc and buzzed slowly in the direction of the candle. Stephen felt compelled to watch it’s journey. As it got to about a foot away from the white waxy surface, it hovered dumbly for a ten count.
Stephen saw the orange colour of the tongue dart out of the creatures mouth and snatch the fly out of the air with horrifying accuracy. He stared dumbfounded. He hadn’t even seen the thing had a mouth yet and was disgusted to find that it was segmented: it’s muzzle seemed to split apart in two sections. The tongue was a bright neon orange.
The eyes, both of them this time, locked back on Stephen’s.
Crunchy. Juicy. Yummy. Tummy, Stephen thought. He stopped to wonder where that thought had come from.
He walked into the kitchen-
-to begin making supper. He’s no world class cook, but Trish would just have to choke the food down. He’s focused on other matters.
I should probably do something about that thing! Take it somewhere. Or maybe just destroy it!
He pulls out a cutting board from the counter where they are kept.
Am I crazy? Am I hallucinating? Maybe there’s really nothing there!
He tears open a bag of carrots which he grabs from the pile of groceries and begins washing them.
No! This is the real world! In the real world, when you see something, it’s really there! This isn’t a movie. Besides, am I hallucinating all those bloody flies?
He grabs a knife from the rack and begins cutting the carrots.
What about that fly? It seemed like it was intentionally hovering in front of my face.
Chop. Chop. Chop. Tire shaped slices of carrot fly in all directions, rolling off the cutting board. Some flying off the counter, landing with a bounce on the floor.
It was like it was getting my attention. That’s a pretty stupid thought. Unless-
“Ow!” he dropped the knife and looked at his freshly sliced finger. Serves me right for not paying attention to what I’m doing.
He looked around the room for something to use as a bandage.
It is possible, he thinks as he finds a roll of paper towel, tears off a piece and uses it to slow the bleeding from his finger, that whatever it is can control the flies. I mean, obviously it eats, but it can’t possibly move. Even if it does have limbs, it’s stuck in wax.
He stands over the kitchen sink and removes the paper towel, letting the blood well up in the wound and spill over the side, into the drain.
It must have some kind of ability to mentally lure less sentient beings close enough to feed from.
Man am I ever crackers.
He chuckles at himself as he turns and grabs the knife off the kitchen counter and walks into the living room. His bleeding finger sticking out, droplets of blood falling to the floor.
Seriously, just thinking, if whatever it is was really stuck, then it’d have to have some means of eating. Maybe it really does call food to it. Flies and spiders. Small creatures like that, something to feed on.
Stephen heard the lapping noise from a distance and slowly climbed back up the trail his mind had taken him down to find the source. He looked at this own hand, which held a knife. The knife was digging into the flesh of the finger on his other hand; it moved slowly and gently, sawing back and forth. Before the pain began to register, he followed the spill of blood as it traveled down the length of the blade, pooled on the edge and eventually dripped down in a steady stream of pattering blood. Down below, the thing in the candle was happily lapping up the blood, like a thirsty dog drinking from a fresh downpour. The orange tongue was whipping around furiously, grabbing every drop from the air.
He dropped the knife – unfortunately it didn’t land in the creatures head, he would later think – and ran to the sink, crying out in pain and terror.
He vomited. Later he’d find burst blood vessels under his eyes.
He rinsed off his finger, taking desperate gulps of air and wrapped it up carefully with the first aid kit Trish kept under the sink, trying to keep the panic at bay. He was going to need stitches. The minor cut he had given himself while chopping the carrots had been gored open by the knife. And he had used that cut to actually feed the thing.
He cleaned up as best he could, not wanting to startle Trish when she came home with the sight of blood. He eyed the thing carefully as he did so. It seemed to have gone into a kind of doze, something you might expect to do after a large thanks giving dinner.
He left a note explaining that he had gone to the hospital and she should meet him there. Later, after an argument, he realized he should have let her know he was alright, that she shouldn’t worry. But at that moment, he hadn’t felt alright.
He felt very afraid.
“Oh no,” Stephen said, staring down at the place on the mantle where the candle stood; or what was left of it. The candle looked as if it had been burned down, about half way, over the course of the last few weeks and now it sat, sides mushroomed outward, as if something inside had pushed it’s way out. As he was sure it had.
He turned quickly, expecting the creature to be standing behind him. He looked down, up, around the room frantically, glancing behind his back, certain that it would be there, behind every turn when he wasn’t looking. He took a few stumbling steps toward the door, desperate to get out of the house. He jerked to a stop and turned to the kitchen. He felt an ‘itch’ in the back of his mind, compelling him back. A familiar voice in his head. He tried to fight against it. Without even noticing what he was doing, he walked over and grabbed a book of matches off the mantle, then walked into the kitchen.
In his mind, he was out of the house, in his car driving away. In reality he was in a darkened, gloomy kitchen, walking with heavy footfalls coming from behind; he was followed by a scraping, slithering sound which could only be a tail. He no longer glanced around, which was good for him, because the sight of the now seven foot tall thing behind him would surely cause heart failure.
He grabbed a can off the counter in mid stride and held it close to his side. Stephen was no longer arguing with himself. In fact, he was no longer really thinking at all.
He entered the short hallway, turned slightly and went into Trish’s bedroom. He flicked on the light to see what he was doing. His breath caught in his throat, then let out in a sort of horrified moan as he surveyed the room.
Candles of all shapes and sizes lined the shelves around the room. Multi-coloured cylinders with wicks protruding from them were scattered along the floor. They weren’t all as big as the one Trish had unwrapped weeks before, but some were, and he spotted two or three that looked to be even bigger. There was a pile in the middle of the bed, all with wicks facing upward, waiting for someone to set them alight.
Stephen, despite his best intentions, could imagine the newly freed creature, in the midst of it’s growing pains, laying it’s strange waxy eggs in it’s nest. He didn’t know what would have happened if Trish had been home when it escaped. Maybe because she couldn’t see it, that meant she would have been safe; but Stephen had his doubts.
He put the can in his pocket, then took a match from the book. He glanced sideways at the creature, but it stayed out of the light and all Stephen could see was a terrible spiky-haired silhouette. He felt the itch in his mind again and knew that the creature was gesturing him forward.
The match popped as he struck it and he lit the first wick. The flame caught and a spark erupted, causing him to jerk back. His hand went numb and he knew that spark was only the beginning. He struck another match and began lighting the rest of the wicks to his right, not every wick erupting, but every time a candle was fully alight. He could barely feel his fingers and he was only on the fifth candle. Although the flame reached his fingers, he kept lighting. The creature compelled him onward. His face tightened in pain as the flames licked and ate at his fingers.
Finally, the flame went out. He hissed in pain as he dropped it to the ground, but he promptly grabbed a new match, struck it and continued around the room, lighting matches under the supervising gaze of the thing in the hall.
It took him a long time to light every candle in the room and he was on the last match of the book that had surely been full. He was finishing off the last of the ones on the bed. The flame was almost lighting his fingers on fire and each spark that blew brought a fresh bout of pain; but the creature wouldn’t let him stop. His hand trembled in pain and fear as he put the precariously low flame of the match to the last bone white wick. The flame almost died out, and Stephen knew his death would be very painful if that happened. The creature growled behind him. Stephen breathed a sigh of relief as the flame caught on the wick with one final pop of sparks and grew. The flame grew like the creature seemed to grow.
He blew out the match and now that his work was done, he was allowed to put his charred fingers in his mouth. He thought the creature would kill him now, but nothing happened. It just stood in the hall. That’s when Stephen realized that it couldn’t kill him. At least not yet. It couldn’t light the candles and therefore needed him to stay, in case any of them went out. And eventually, the children would need to feed.
Horrified, he grabbed the can in his pocket. The creature clearly didn’t read minds, just controlled them. It didn’t know what the can was, or what Stephen’s intentions had been when he grabbed it. Otherwise he knew he wouldn’t be holding it right now.
The creature moved toward him and Stephen thought maybe he had been wrong about it being able to read minds. He braced himself for a blow as it approached, but it moved past him, going to stand in a different position, as if it wanted a better view of the birth of it’s babies.
Stephen now had a better view of the quill covered creature, which was more or less standing in front of him now. It was much taller then him and he thought he could see it growing even now. It’s eyes, which each seemed to be surrounded with tentacles tipped with razor sharp bone, tightened and constricted with pain as it’s bones expanded inside it; or maybe it was just eager to eat him.
He slowly pulled out the can of oven cleaner that had been sitting on the counter, thankful that Trish was a neat freak, especially about her kitchen. Standing in front of the warm glow of the bed, he popped off the cap. The sound disturbed the creature and Stephen stilled. It eyed him suspiciously for a moment and Stephen felt his bladder give a little. Oh well. I’ll be dead soon, anyway.
The creature seemed to decide to stop standing around and do something about it’s supper; it took a half step toward Stephen; he cringed back, waiting for the end.
But then one of the candles-
-began to tremble. It caught the creatures attention and before it could reach out and bat Stephen aside like one of those punching clowns, it went back to the bed, excitement in it’s posture.
He saw his only chance. Lifting his hand, Stephen began spraying the contents of the can straight into the open flames of the candles, turning the cleaner into a bona-fide flame thrower. He was at the wrong angle and couldn’t get the flame to hit the creature, but the bedspread caught and erupted into flames.
The creature seemed to scream. It’s cry was high and wailing, sounding almost like crickets- if crickets had the same decibel range as a fighter jet. It started toward him.
Stephen had already known he was going to die. Even if he had done nothing, they would eventually have eaten him, after killing him if he was lucky. So this was no surprise. He ducked down, narrowly avoiding a swinging limb. He felt one of the spiky hairs on it’s arm graze his neck, which instantly erupted in pain. He felt his neck go limp and he struggled to stay on his feet.
He swung the can around, spraying at the candles against the wall. The flaming liquid hit the walls, which caught with flame immediately. The flames from the bed had spread to the curtains. The room was aglow with angry fire.
Stephen, who was still spraying any place that he could, felt his chest collapse as a tree trunk of an arm finally made contact with him. He flew ten feet across the room and crashed against the far wall, not able to breath, partly due to several cracked ribs, he was sure, but also due to the spiky hairs on the things arm that had penetrated his lungs. His chest was crying out in pain. The quills felt a thousands times worse than bee stings.
It lumbered over to him, fury in it’s eyes. Stephen couldn’t move, let alone duck and dodge another blow.
He jumped as a flaming candle rolled off the bed. The wax had mostly melted away and inside, a tiny creature was writhing in agony. It was blackening, but Stephen still recognized a kinship to the monstrous thing he saw in front of him now.
Without thinking, Stephen picked up the flaming thing, adding more pain, and hurled it at its giant mother, who caught it gently-
-in it’s talons. Stephen hoisted the can with great effort and sprayed into the creature, which burst into flames. It writhed, but held onto it’s tiny child. Stephen almost felt pity for it in that moment. Then it’s eyes turned to him. And as the room, and eventually the house, burned down around them, it lunged itself at him, ready to exact it’s final revenge on him.
They died together.
Trish pulled up to her house as close as the fire trucks and police tape would allow. Her face showing the shock she felt at all the commotion around her home.
She got out and flagged down one of the firemen. The house was a smouldering ruin, but there weren’t any flames, or smoke, so the fireman was free to come over.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“Yeah, I live here. Or did,” she said. He lifted up the tape barrier and she bent under.
“I’m very sorry,” he said as she surveyed the damage.
“No, I am. I knew I forgot to blow out that candle. I asked…uh…a friend to come take a look at it, but I guess he forgot, or it was too late.” The fireman’s face tighted as she spoke. “What is it?”
“Well, I can assure you that it doesn’t look like the fire was your fault. You say you asked a friend to come check on the house? What was his name?”
“Stephen Miller. He was my-“
The fireman stopped a passing policeman. “Hey, we got a possible ID. Check the system for a Stephen Miller.” The cop nodded and ran off.
“What’s going on?” Trish demanded. “Why are there so many police here?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Ms…”
Ms Saunders. I’m sergeant Cooper. It appears that your house was set on fire.
“There was somebody inside when it happened and it appears that some kind of accelerant was used-“
“Accelerant?” Trish said. She was sounding close to tears.
“A flammable substance. Someone lit your house on fire. Now I’m going to go talk to those officers over there and in a minute, they’re going to tell you what they know and then they’ll have to ask you some questions. Can you have a seat in your car, please?”
She nodded and stumbled under the police tape.
The fireman walked over to an officer who was talking into a CB receiver. The firemen were being replaced by police.
“Got the owner of the house sitting over there, in that blue Taurus,” he said, pointing. “Said you’d want to ask her some questions.”
“Thanks,” the officer said, reaching in the car to grab a clip board. The fireman hesitated. “Something I can help you with?” the officer said, noticing.
“Just wondering if you’re going to tell her about the other…things we found.”
The officer sighed, resigning himself to a long day. “No, I’m not. And look, I need you to get all your men who went inside that house together, before they go home. I’m getting calls from higher up that want to make sure nobody ever knows about that. I would imagine they’ll make it worth your while to forget about those charred black…things,” the officer said, mimicking Coopers phrase.
“Heh. I’d happily pay them to forget what I’d seen. Any word from the corner?”
“Yeah, and just between you and me, it looks like the body,” he glanced around. “The human body had a couple really big bites taken out of it. Some living we gotta make, h’uh?” He gave a quick bark of a laugh, then walked off to talk to the owner.
In her car, Trish was fighting back tears. She thought about her house and all her stuff. She didn’t know where she was going to sleep that night. She didn’t know anybody in the city; not anyone really close, at least.
She also thought about Stephen. But not as much as she would have expected. She knew he was going to die; that’s why she started dating, wasn’t it? She just didn’t expect him to take her ‘darling’ and her whole house, with him when he did.
Trish watched out the window as the police officer walked slowly toward her car. She knew the police wouldn’t mention if they found anything…strange. And that was good; there were some things she didn’t want to explain. She just wasn’t looking forward to starting over. New house, new stuff, new boyfriend.
And she had to start her candle collection from scratch.
Array 1- Channel 4.
Ursa Minor once had six stars. So did Cygnus. I know most of you don’t believe me. In fact it’s possible that none of you do. But I swear on the graves of my family that it’s true. Every word.
They’ve been here ever since the early 80s. They hide in our skies, disguising themselves as stars. They’re the ones who made my father become sick with dementia until he died, taking my mother and little sister with him when he rowed the family canoe out onto the lake and flooded it until it sank, killing them all. He believed me, you see. He’d been one of the few who could remember the night skies without them. When the constellations had the right number of stars.
I remember the day they arrived. I had been on my way to a game of miniature golf with my little sister Anna when I decided to use the payphone near the grocery store that we had to pass to phone home. I forget why I was calling, but I remember that I didn’t have any money. I dialed the number for my parent’s house without the usual collect call pre-dialing. Usually you could do that and an operator would come on the line and ask you to deposit some money or if you wanted to make a collect call.
This time, there was a different voice on the line. What they sometimes call a chip voice. It simply recited “Array One, Channel Four. Array One, Channel Four. Array One, Channel Four. Array One.” and then paused before repeating itself.
I didn’t know what to make of it. I let Anna listen and she agreed that it was weird. But she is, as she used to put it, more normal than I am, so it meant nothing to her. She suggested that they were probably just testing the phones to make sure they were working right. That didn’t seem right to me, though. The code sounded almost military.
My sister and I played our round of golf. We play at Screaming Mimi’s, you know that one with the animatronic statues of the old time actors? There’s a statue of Esther Williams as a mermaid on the fourth hole which knocks your ball aside with her tail if you knock it in her direction.
Anyhow, I didn’t play all that well that time. I couldn’t get that readout out of my head. “Array One, Channel Four…” Or maybe it was RA1-Channel Four? In any case I wanted to know more.
When we got home, mom made us wash up for dinner. Dad talked about work. About the new guy who just arrived with with bright ideas that the boss agreed would secure the company’s place in the business. They’re energy consultants. I don’t really know what that means, but it made my dad good money, so it was at least a profitable job.
After dinner, we sat in front of the TV. My sister and I wanted to watch MTV. It was good back then. They played nothing but music videos. But my parents absolutely refused to watch “that nonsense”. My father unprogrammed the station from the remote. He thought that meant it was no longer available. Of course I knew that if you tapped the numbers for the exact channel you could still watch it, even if it skipped past it when you were channel-surfing.
We watched a rerun of an old show called Perry Mason. The commercial came on. You remember that one with the weird talking head guy advertising for a version of Coke that nobody wanted and acting like he thought it was delicious, even though he was supposedly computer-generated and couldn’t even drink it? While he was stuttering his way through his misinformed praise of a soda he couldn’t even drink, I asked my father about the message I’d heard earlier on the phone.
He agreed it sounded military. But he said it wasn’t an army code. He served in the army as a communications officer for five years before he switched careers to be a medic, and it wasn’t something he recognized.
He went into his workshop and locked the door. The way he used to do when my sister and I were really little and he wanted to be sure we didn’t come in and hurt ourselves. He was in there for a little over an hour. He composed himself quickly when he came out, but I knew he’d learned something while he was in there that disturbed him.
I went in after he’d gone back to the TV room. There was an old radio there, one of those CBs that truckers and CBers used to talk to each other with in those old days before cell phones and the internet. It was unusable. In fact, parts of it looked like something in a painting by Dali, that one with the clocks.
I went outside to think, looking up at the old familiar constellations.
They were all wrong. I counted seven stars in Cygnus. That didn’t seem right. I knew there had alway been six. I went to get my book on astronomy. The one my grandmother had given to me when I turned nine the year before she died. It had been her book when she was little and she wanted to share the stars with me. I read it every day, always counting the stars in each constellation. I knew their names, and even some of the stories of the gods and heroes they were named after. I had just read it a few days before and I know I’d read that Cygnus had six stars. But when I read the book, it now read that Cygnus was a constellation that held seven stars. Not all of the constellations had more stars, but there were at least three in each hemisphere with more than they once had.
That was thirty years ago. A lot has happened since then. Some might think that aliens trying to change our world might be responsible for all the wars in the Middle East, or the eventual downfall of the shuttle program. But they’ve been more subtle than that. You know those people who put things like Honey Boo-Boo on the Learning Channel. Or who gradually weed out passages in old history books that they consider too passe to be of interest to modern students? Those people who inundated MTV with those mindless entertainment programs that we watched until we forgot what intelligent TV was? You know those reporters who ignore the subtle signs of invasion to broadcast whether or not some panda got laid this week? Those people are the target. They’re the reason so many people don’t know the difference anymore. I stopped watching TV in 1987, after my favorite show was pulled. So my mind wasn’t messed up like so many others.
I doubt you believe this story, but I know it’s true.
Ursa Minor once had six stars.
Credit: authour ElegantButler
Danny knew he had made a mistake in coming, but he took a seat nonetheless.
All of the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on his side of town seemed warm and welcoming. All of the people were friendly and knew him by name. There were hugs, handshakes, slaps on the back. The rooms were well lit with comfortable chairs. There were always freshly baked cookies or donuts.
A recent falling out with his sponsor, Ralph, had caused Danny to choose to avoid some of his normal meetings, though. He had already been down to two meetings a week, which Ralph had so poignantly called him to the carpet on, so he didn’t want to cut those out completely. He had been feeling antsy lately and probably needed to go to a few more. Never the type to ask for help, he was unwilling to admit it, though. Instead, he decided to try a few meetings on the other side of the tracks. Whitehall. The seedy part of town.
Fucking Ralph. “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” he said. Danny had made a list of all those he had harmed, and went about making amends to them all. Some accepted his apologies, some didn’t. All he could do was clean his own side of the street. There were fa few amends that were impossible to make, but he had admitted all of his sins to either his sponsor, his therapist, or his priest. All but The One Thing, that is. That’s what Ralph kept harping on. Danny had stayed sober for fifteen years. He deserved to keep The One Thing to himself, didn’t he? Fucking Ralph.
Danny chose a group with the innocuous name of “New Hope” that met in the basement of Saint Pete’s Episcopal Church. While groups sometimes did actually meet in church basements, they were rarely as depicted on television or in the movies. That’s just not the way things worked. Hollywood had gotten the coffee and donuts part down to a tee, but missed the mark on most of the rest. Sadly, there weren’t even any donuts at the “New Hope” group. Danny wished that he had known. He would have sprung for some. AA had given him his life back, and brought a good bit of financial security with it, so he didn’t mind giving back now and again.
He made his way over to the coffee urn, making eye contact with a few people on the way. He didn’t even bother to smile. The most he got were some grunts and shrugs as he walked by. He had already decided that he wouldn’t ever be coming back to this group, so why bother. He wasn’t about to walk out, though. Giving up was for losers. He grabbed a Styrofoam cup from the top of the stack, which already had some black smudged fingerprints on the outside, and filled it with a sludge that they called coffee here at Saint Pete’s.
Danny threw a buck into a basket on the table and plopped into a chair that seemed to be farthest away from everyone else. This was nothing like the usual meetings he hit. The church’s basement room was about forty by forty feet square. There were eight rectangular folding tables set up in a makeshift circle with wooden chairs set along the outside. Unfortunately, there would be no speaker. This was a discussion meeting. They would most likely read something out of some bit of AA approved literature – the Big Book, Twelve and Twelve, or some meditation book – and then go around the room weighing in on their own personal experience, strength, and hope. Danny didn’t feel like talking, but the one bit of his sponsor’s advice that he had latched onto early was to always say something. Always be “part of.”
Even though the ceiling held banks of fluorescent lights, the room still seemed cold. Perhaps it was the type of bulb they used. (Were there different types?) Or perhaps it was the way the light reflected off the sickly yellow linoleum floor and institution-green walls. It smelled funny, too. Oh well, thought Danny, it’s only for an hour. He had spent twice that amount of time scraping together change for another bottle while fighting off the shakes in the past. In comparison, this would surely be more pleasurable than that.
That’s what it came down to, wasn’t it? For him, to drink is to die. There were times that he had done the most disgraceful things in order to get drunk. Things that would have sickened him if he had been sober and not fiending for the next drink. So if sitting through a boring meeting in a crappy place meant not drinking, even for only an hour, then so be it. Not a difficult choice.
He was not a snob, but the thought that the people here seemed to be a little lower class than what he was used to. He was by no means rich, but now that he had gotten his life together, he was back in the upper-middle class demographic. The meetings that he attended were regularly frequented by businessmen, doctors, realtors, and other professionals. Frankly, even the blue-collar people at his normal meetings seemed to be upper class compared to these people. These people were… and he had to remind himself that he was being honest and not uncaring… the dregs of society. Unshaven, unkempt, tattooed, greasy, foul smelling.
AA had taught him not to judge. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Still, it was hard.
Just before the meeting was called to order, a man plopped down into the chair next to him. Oh, come on, buddy, thought Danny. Ten empty chairs, plenty to keep enough distance between all of us, and you have to sit right next to me. He sighed. At least this guy seemed friendly.
Short, stout (PC for obese), with a red, round face, he introduced himself. “Hi there! Name’s Mike! How ‘bout you?”
“Danny,” he said as he extended his hand.
At least Mike was dressed well. Button down shirt, slacks, dress shoes. He was even wearing cologne. Or was it the smell of booze? No, Danny decided, it was cologne. The guy’s breath smelled bad though. Not “smelled” as in “drinking” smelled, but just reeked. His teeth seemed white enough, but it was as if he hadn’t brushed in ages.
Mike tried to make small talk. “I haven’t seen you before. So how long have you been coming to these meetings?”
“About sixteen years,” replied Danny. “I came in for a year, and then decided that I wasn’t ready to stop. I went back out for a while, and have been sober ever since. Fifteen years, one month, one week, and two days.”
“Wow!” Mike seemed truly amazed, “How many minutes?”
Danny just smiled.
“Me?” Mike continued, “Me? I’ve only been coming for about a month now. I’ll have thirty days on Wednesday.”
“Well, congratulations. For some people, those first thirty are the hardest. Real white knuckle time.”
Mike was definitely pink clouding it. That’s the term for AAs in early sobriety who think that life has suddenly become wonderful and carefree. After a good period of sobriety, it kicks in that drunk or not, life still has challenges. There’s just no more alcohol to make the bad feelings go away.
“I’ll be getting my chip.”
Mike was of course referring to the colored aluminum medallion that – although not universally used – has become almost synonymous with AA. Sobriety coins themselves do not help people stay sober as such. It’s the meaning behind them that is important. When a person receives a coin for one month, three months, or a longer period of time, the coins give a sense of pride for staying sober as long as they have, and to motivate them to continue. If a person should feel the desire to drink again, they might finger the coin in their pocket to remind them of all the headway they have made up to that point. It makes them ask themselves if they truly want to throw away all that progress. Danny never liked the chips. He would occasionally step back and remember exactly how much sober time he had – remember that last drunk vividly – but he didn’t want a constant reminder. He felt it would make it easier to ask the question “Has it been long enough? Am I cured now?”
The conversation was surprisingly pleasant enough, but Danny was happy when the meeting began all the same. Same old, same old. Business first, then reading, then around the table sharing. When eight o’clock rolled around, the chairperson indicated that it was time to close, and they joined hands for the Lord’s Prayer. AA is not a religious organization, but saying the Lord’s Prayer at the end is sort of a tradition in most – but not all – groups. It’s a sign of unity, if nothing else. Danny really didn’t plan to stick around for fellowship afterwards, but he always stayed long enough to help clean up. However, before he got to the door, Mike cornered him.
“Hey Danny, am I going to see you around here again?”
“Eh,” Danny creased his brow, “Probably not. I live on the other side of town. I just stopped in here tonight because… well, it was just convenient.” Danny guessed that had not technically been a lie. AAs had to be careful. “Practice these principals in all of our affairs.” Lies paved a slippery slope.
“Oh,” Mike seemed dejected, “It’s just that they say to get phone numbers – you know, to call for when you feel like drinking – and I was wondering if I could get yours.”
Danny’s shoulders relaxed a little. “Of course, Mike. That’s never a problem. Never feel like you can’t use it.” Mike wouldn’t use it. Most of the newbies never did. Danny pulled out a pen and jotted it down in the back of Mike’s meeting pamphlet anyway. “There you go.”
“Thanks, Danny” Mike shook the pamphlet. “I will definitely use this. You’re a lifesaver. You guys are great.”
Mike bounced away. Danny made his way out into the parking lot and slid behind the wheel of his 2012 KIA. He said a little prayer for Mike. “Hope he makes it.” Who knew? Maybe being at that meeting was God’s way of putting him in the right place at the right time.
Danny rolled through the Burger King drive-thru on the way home to pick up an artery clogging dinner. He just wanted to flick on the television, eat, shower, and get into bed. It had been an exhausting day. He had barely pulled into his garage when his cell phone began to jingle. Danny finished parking, unbuckled his seatbelt, and answered the phone right there in the front seat. It was an old habit – probably not a healthy one – but he just had to pick up the phone when it rang. He could not bear the thought of someone leaving a message. He had heard stories of AAs who were never able to get through to someone, and things didn’t turn out well. Once their faith in the system was broken, especially the newcomers, they didn’t trust it anymore.
“Danno! It’s Mike!”
“Uh,” Danny shifted the phone to his right ear, “What’s up, Mike?”
“Oh, no no no. Don’t worry, Dan. I’m not thinking of drinking. Just wanted to test out the number. Practice call, you know? They say to get used to calling when you don’t need to, and that way it’ll be easier to call when you do need to. Right?”
“Um, yeah Mike. That is a good idea.”
“So what’s up?”
“Um, well, not a whole lot since I saw you. I just drove home. That’s about it,” Danny said with a smirk on his face. “I’m about to have some dinner and then it’s off to bed.”
“Oh, okay,” Mike replied. “You go have your dinner and have a great night! Maybe I’ll talk to you tomorrow?”
“Sure, Mike. Tomorrow.”
Danny showered, toweled off, and padded into his bedroom. He slid into a pair of silk boxers and fell into bed. He didn’t imagine that he’d have any problem sleeping – he was physically exhausted – but as usual, his mind raced a mile a minute. He was never able to fall asleep without the radio turned on, even when about ready to pass out. His head would hit the pillow and the stinkin’ thinkin’ would kick in. That’s how Danny discovered the wonders of talk radio.
Dialed in to a pundit recapping the day’s news in a soothing voice, Danny pulled the chain on his bedside lamp and plunged the room into darkness. The pillow was cool. His stomach was full. His mind had calmed. Sleep began to…
Danny phone jingled. He propped himself up on one elbow, used the remote to turn the radio off, and grabbed the phone from the nightstand. Its screen had lit up with the number of the incoming call, but he didn’t recognize it. It wasn’t a name that had been programmed into his phone. Danny briefly considered putting the phone back down and letting it go to voicemail, but he knew that he would not be able to sleep until he heard the message and, more than likely, called whomever it was back.
“Mmm,” Danny sighed, “Hello?”
“Danny.” Mike sounded grave this time. “Sorry to call so late. I mean, I know you said that you were going to hit the hay, and I didn’t want to bother you, but…”
“S’okay, Mike. Go ahead.”
“Remember how I said that I’d be getting my chip in a couple of days? Yeah. I can’t believe it’ll have been a month already. You know, the day I took my last drink was a special day.”
“Every day is special when it’s your last day drunk, Mike.”
“Yeah, yeah. But, I mean special. It was the anniversary of… Well…” Mike began to get flustered. “See, my wife and I, my ex-wife that is, and I lost our daughter that day.”
Danny swung his legs out from under the covers and sat up. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t be, Danny. It happened a long time ago. Long time ago. It would have been her twenty-first birthday,” Mike trailed off. “So long ago. The denial, the depression, the sadness, the anger. I started drinking afterward and just never thought to stop. Until now, that is.”
“That’s a long time to be stewing in it, Mike. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Nah, Danny. No sense dredging up the past. Not when I’m doing so well.”
“You’re only as sick as your secrets, Mike.” God, Danny hated it when his sponsor was right.
“Yeah, yeah. Maybe when I’m feeling a little more stable, Danny. Maybe I’ll talk about it then. I’m just not doing so well right now.”
Danny spoke with Mike for about half an hour and, when he was convinced that Mike was over the urge to drink, let him off the phone and promised to meet him the following day. He lay down his phone and swung back under the covers, a smile on his face. What was it they say? Even if Mike went out and drank that night, at least Danny stayed sober. Help yourself by helping others. Danny forgot to turn the radio back on, and that night, he dreamt about The One Thing.
Danny awoke to the sound of his phone. It wasn’t the alarm tone, but the ringtone. Another phone call. He had come to recognize Mike’s number by now. This was getting a little annoying, but sometimes that’s the way it went. Mike would either fall off the wagon soon, or he would start to make new contacts. In the meantime, Danny would just have to deal with it.
“Good morning, Mike.”
“Dan, my man! Good to hear your voice.”
“Yeah,” said Danny, scratching at the back of his head, “It’s been like… six or seven hours now, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m not bothering you, am I?”
“No, no.” Yes, yes, though Danny. “So how did last night go? Didn’t drink, did you?”
“Nope, and I owe it all to you Dan.”
“Well, Mike, you picked up the phone and made the call. So you can give yourself a little pat on the back. That phone can seem real heavy when it stands between you and a drink.”
“Ain’t that the truth? So, are you hitting a meeting this morning, Danny?”
“Um, no, Mike. I have a job,” Danny tried not to sound ticked off. “I have to work today. I promise that we’ll get to one tonight. You pick it out, and call me back around six. Okay?”
“Got it, Danno. Six! Talk to you then.”
Danny’s worst fear came true. Three more calls during the day. Mike had picked a group called “As Bill Sees It,” on Danny’s side of town. Danny decided that he would need to have a talk with Mike that evening. Calling when in need, or even for occasional friendly support, was fine, but there was such a thing as abusing the system. You know, the boy who cried wolf sort of thing. Danny was about ready to throw his always-answer-the-phone policy out the door.
Danny didn’t look forward to the conversation, and had a rough time forcing his dinner down that evening. He wasn’t hungry but, as usual, he tried to keep his stomach full. “HALT” Hungry, angry, lonely, tired. Four things an alcoholic never wanted to be. Any of those could be a setup for another drink. As he was finishing his second hot dog, wrapped in white bread with ketchup – just as he liked them – his phone rang again. He checked the screen. Fucking Mike. Again. He decided that he wouldn’t answer it, and let it go to voicemail.
Seconds later, it rang again. Didn’t that guy get the message? Danny let it go to voicemail again. Another few minutes passed, and it rang again. Danny wondered if Mike had changed his mind. Maybe he couldn’t make it to the meeting after all. Still, he let it go to voicemail. Thankfully, more minutes passed and Mike did not call back. Danny felt like a heel, but he just couldn’t deal with it anymore.
At around a quarter of seven, Danny tied his shoes and gathered his wallet and car keys. As he headed toward the door, his phone jingled. Mike. This time, he answered.
“Hey, Mike. I’m headed out the door right now.”
“Oh thank God, Dan!” exclaimed Mike. “I couldn’t get a hold of you, and then I started to worry… I wondered if maybe you went out drinking again, I… I…”
“Mike! Slow down, buddy.” Danny was beginning to let his temper get the best of him. “Would you…? Oh, look. Just wait for me at the meeting. Outside! We need to talk.”
Mike was breathing more regularly now. “Oh, Danny. You really had me going there. Well, anyway, you can ride with me.”
Danny strode out of the back door and pressed the button to lift the garage door. As the door rolled up, it gradually revealed a battered, green Honda sitting in the drive. Mike sat behind the wheel with the engine idling. Danny was taken aback. He walked briskly up to the driver’s side door and motioned for Mike to lower the window. After a moment, and with a confused look on his face, Mike hit the button and the window glided down.
“What’s wrong, Dan? Hop in. I thought that maybe we could ride to the meeting together. Then, maybe grab a cup of coffee after, huh?”
Danny was fed up. “No! No, Mike! No meeting, no coffee after. I don’t have time for this. I don’t know what to do with you. You cannot keep calling me. How the hell did you even find out where I live?”
“Oh, uh,” Mike looked shamefacedly, “I guess maybe I, uh, followed you home last night.”
“What the hell?!”
“Sorry, Dan. I’m new at this. I really don’t know how it works.”
How it works. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. Danny thought it over and softened.
“Okay, Mike. Here’s how it works,” he said calmly. “I’ll come to the meeting, but I drive there myself. We talk a little. After the meeting, I come home. Alone. No coffee. No more calling, unless you really need to – like ‘I am going to drink’ need to. Are we clear?”
Mike looked a little hurt, but replied, “Okay. Clear, Danno.”
Danny got into his KIA and followed Mike to the meeting. They sat next to each other, but Mike was uncharacteristically quiet. Afterward, they separated in the parking lot with nary a word.
“See you tomorrow, Danny?”
“Oh, hey,” said Mike, “There’s a candlelight meeting called ‘Nite Owls’ tonight at the… Oh, right. Sorry.”
“Tomorrow, Mike.” Danny stressed.
Danny thought that Mike may have gotten the message, but just in case, he turned his phone off for the evening for what was probably the first time in years. That night, Danny had a nightmare about The One Thing.
Danny pulled himself from bed and showered in the morning, and had almost forgotten his phone. Still wrapped in a towel and with damp hair, he walked over to the nightstand and turned it on. He returned to the bathroom as it went through its boot up process, and then he heard a message tone from the next room. Hmm. Wonder who that could be.
Six missed calls from Mike. One two voicemails, four texts. “Thanks for coming, Dan,” “Sure you don’t want to go to the meeting?,” Great meeting – shoulda been there!” and “Need 2 talk.” Danny didn’t want any confrontation today. He turned his phone back off, dressed and left home. He knew – just knew – that Mike would show up at his door after not receiving answers for long enough. He planned to not be there. Even though it was a Saturday, he would hang out at his office. There was a couch there. He could take a nap if need be. (And he did need it after the previous night.)
He felt silly and demoralized. It was his own house, damn it. He was being chased away from his own home by… well, a stalker. Should he talk to the police? No, he decided. He would talk to his sponsor first. Not daring to turn his cell back on for fear that it might ring in his hand; he picked up his desk phone and dialed in Ralph’s number. Ralph was no help. At least, he didn’t tell Danny what he wanted to hear.
“Just suck it up, Danny. I’ve had my share of pigeons who either tried too hard or didn’t try hard enough. My guess is that this Mike guy will turn out to be one or the other. Why don’t you bring him along to tonight’s meeting? I’ll meet you guys at the ‘Acceptance Group’ tonight. Maybe I can have a talk with him.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
Danny turned his cell back on in order to call Mike and invite him to the “Acceptance Group” that evening. Six missed calls, and it was barely noon. He sighed and began to scroll to Mike’s number when the phone jingled. Danny didn’t even need to look at the number to know who it was.
“Danny! I tried to…”
“Yeah, I know Mike. I’ve been at work. I just turned my phone on and saw that you had called.” An icy thought ran down Danny’s spine. Did Mike know where he worked, too? “Anyway, Mike, my sponsor suggested that I introduce you to him tonight. We’re going to Saint Andrew’s to a meeting called the ‘Acceptance Group.’ Want to come?”
“Are you kidding? Do you even need to ask? I would never pass on the chance to meet my sponsor’s sponsor. He’s like, what, my grand-sponsor?”
Whoa. Danny thought about it, and never had the talk of him being Mike’s sponsor come up. A sponsor is a recovering alcoholic who has successfully made some personal progress in the AA recovery program. He or she is asked by another AA member to take on the individual responsibility of sponsorship. A sponsor shares their experiences on an individual and personal basis with another alcoholic who is trying to achieve or maintain their own sobriety through the AA program. They help the person focus and navigate through the stages of the program. The relationship between an AA member and his sponsor is usually a pretty close and intimate one, and not gone into lightly. Not only does an alcoholic need to carefully choose a sponsor, but also the potential sponsor must cautiously decide whether taking on a sponsee is prudent.
Danny gave him the benefit of the doubt, though. Mike was new at this. “Hey now, Mike, I’m just another alcoholic willing to help you out. I’m not really in the right state of mind to sponsor anyone.” Not until he rid his conscience of The One Thing, anyway.
“Don’t feel bad, Mike. You’re new. You catch on to how this works.” Then Danny had a thought, one that might rid him of Mike for good. “Ralph has really helped me out. Maybe he’d be a good choice for you to consider.”
“Eh, he won’t be the same as you, Dan.”
“You’d be surprised. We’re all the same in one way or another. Promise me that you’ll keep an open mind.”
“Okay. Anything for you, Danno.”
Danny hung up and texted directions to the meeting. Then he turned his phone back off. He decided on trying to catch a little nap, after all, and so curled up on the couch in the reception area of his office. He drifted off almost immediately, but it didn’t last long. He awoke screaming and in a cold sweat just forty-five minutes later. He felt his face and realized that he’d been crying, also. He dreamed of The One Thing. Why had thoughts of it returned, and in such force? Fucking Ralph. He brought it up and started pressing Danny. That would make sense. Although, Danny had a feeling that Mike had something to do with it. Guilt over avoiding him? Constantly having to look over his shoulder and avoid phone calls? Or perhaps the fact that Mike had lost his daughter. Danny pushed The One Thing to the back of his mind once again, and decided to cross the street to McDonald’s to get in at least one meal before that evening’s meeting.
Danny had to cross a four-lane street in order to reach McDonald’s. It was the middle of the afternoon, clear weather, and – being a Saturday – there was only light traffic. He absentmindedly glanced both directions and crossed, not bothering to walk to the corner and wait for a signal. He was about halfway across when, seemingly out of nowhere, a car came racing at him. The driver was noticeably straddling the double striped centerline of the road, and overcorrected when he noticed Danny at the last moment. Danny could hear the tires screech as the driver got back into his own lane and sped off.
A drunk knew the signs when he saw another drunk driving under the influence. This guy was definitely drunk. Probably drinking in his car all morning and then falling asleep at the wheel after finally deciding to go home. Danny had done it himself. Even though he could have stayed home and drank contentedly (and safely) in the comfort of his living room, he would choose to sit at the park on some mornings and drink in his car. He thought of how strange the ritual was, and how it was not unique to him. On any given morning, there would be a spattering of cars in each lot – all parked as far away from each other as the lot would allow. Each car with a single occupant, seemingly just sitting there. Every now and then, he could glance over and catch the sight of a bottle being raised to the driver’s lips.
Fred, another guy from one of the meetings, would occasionally go down to a local park and “work it.” He’d walk around the lots and catch drunks, pretending that he had just been walking by and was looking to make conversation. Sometimes, his presence was enough to make the drunk drive away. Sometimes, they’d stay and talk. Sometimes, they would even offer him a drink. Only twice, as far as Danny was aware of, did Fred actually get a drunk to open up about his problem and agree to take Fred’s advice. It might not have seemed like a lot, but that may have been two lives saved. Plus countless others, if you figured in the innocent lives that a drunk might take along with himself on the highway to Hell.
Danny began to hyperventilate. He ran the rest of the way across the street and sat on the curb, his gorge rising. He tried to calm himself, but could not. Eventually, he vomited into the gutter. It wasn’t the first time, but in the past, he’d always been drunk or hung over. He realized how pitiful he must have looked. He had never seemed to care in the past.
Eating was out of the question. Danny went back to the parking lot of his office, crossing the street with extra care this time, and got into his car. He drove straight to the church. He would be almost an hour and a half early, but that was okay. Someone was always there early to open up the rooms and make coffee. It was nice to show up and shoot the shit sometimes.
Not surprisingly, Mike was already there when Danny arrived. He was sitting out in the parking lot, but remained in his car. It looked like he was dozing. Danny walked over and rapped on the driver’s side window a few times. Mike startled, and he rolled the window down.
“Danny! You’re early. That’s great.”
“Yep. Couldn’t wait to get here, Mike,” he said half-heartedly. “Tell you what. Let’s go around back and grab a bench.”
Danny led Mike behind the church. There was a small outdoor chapel of sorts – just a few benches faces a cross, and overlooking a small stream. Danny motioned for Mike to take a seat, and then sat down next to him.
“Mike, let’s talk.” Danny seemed surprisingly calm. “I know that you’re pretty new to the program, and this may be skipping ahead quite a bit, but… let me explain how the fourth and fifth steps of AA go. They are, to me at least, probably the most important steps of all twelve. They are where you begin healing.”
“Sounds great, Dan.”
“Not really. I did a really shitty job on my fifth step. Remember how I told you that you’re only as sick as your secrets?”
Mike nodded, “Yeah, Danny.”
“The fourth and fifth steps ask you to make a searching and fearless moral inventory, and then admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
“I can see where that would help. I have so much guilt and remorse, Danny. Sometimes, I think it’s what makes me drink.”
Danny shook his head. “No, Mike, you drink because you’re an alcoholic. But it’s a whole lot easier to get sober when you get your head on straight. When you get rid of all of the shit that’s deep down inside. The stuff that regrets are made of.”
“So are we going to do that now?”
“Not we. Me.”
“I thought that you already did your steps.”
Danny nodded. “I did, Mike. I did. But the fourth and fifth steps are carried on throughout the rest. We have to continue to take a moral inventory, and do those steps over and over, because we are human. Just because we get sober doesn’t make us saints. We still make mistakes.”
Mike nodded slowly and remained quiet. It was as if he knew that Danny was about to say something important and it was time to keep his mouth shut.
“You see, Mike, there was something that I never admitted in my fifth step. Something that I couldn’t admit. The One Thing that I wasn’t ready to give up. I don’t know why, but it’s catching up to me now. I’m afraid that if I don’t let it go, I’m either going to drink or kill myself. Or both.”
“What is it, Danno?”
“This is probably a mistake. Telling a newcomer. Especially about The One Thing. In fact, this would be better left with a priest, but at this point it doesn’t matter because I’m going to have to own up to it. The One Thing is something that everyone will find out about eventually. Probably sooner, now.”
“You can tell me, Danny,” your secret is safe with me.
Suddenly, it was as if Mike had become the old-timer. His demeanor changed. He surely didn’t seem like a newbie anymore. The whole way he was acting… He had gone from being an annoying, overexcited, asshole to a quiet, comforting soul – at least in Danny’s heart. Danny took a deep breath.
“I’ve been sober for fifteen years, one month, one week, and four days. I told you that I came into the rooms about sixteen years ago, though. Well, something happened about six months into that. I’d been dry, sure, but still an alcoholic. Still exhibiting all of the same behavior. That’s what the program is for, by the way. Not to make us stop drinking, but to make us saner, healthier people. Well, Mike, I…” Danny’s breath hitched in his throat. He was already regretting bringing this up, but he felt like it was too late now.
“Go on, Danno. I’m listening.”
“It was late summer. Around seven o’clock, dusk. I was driving up Parkside Avenue, you know the place?”
“Yeah. As a matter of fact, I used to live in a cul-de-sac off Parkside.”
“Then you know the hill, about midways. Anyway, I was coming up over the crest of the hill, tooling along… pink clouding it, stone cold sober, mind you. A girl. A little girl, damn it. She came out from between two parked cars and just… just ran right out in front of me.”
“Oh, God Danny. No.”
“Yes. I couldn’t stop. I fucking ran her down, Mike. A little girl!”
“That’s horrible, but it was an accident Danny. You said so yourself. You were sober. She ran out from between the cars. You couldn’t have known.”
“No, but it was what I did next that was unforgiveable.”
“What, Dan?” Mike rocked back, laced his fingers together, and knitted his brow. He had a clearheaded look about him. One that Danny had never seen on Mike’s face before. “What was unforgiveable?”
Danny took a deep breath. “I didn’t stop. I just kept on driving. I panicked. It was like I had been drinking. I didn’t want to get caught. Afterward, I realized that it was an accident, but at the time… At the time, I just panicked. I acted just like a drunk would have. I left her there, Mike. Maybe she was still alive, but I left her there. What if she was just hurt and could have been saved if I had just stopped?!”
“She wasn’t hurt. She was dead the instant you hit her, Dan.”
“You couldn’t know that. I didn’t know that, and I was there.”
“I know, Danny. That’s what the EMT said. ‘Dead on impact.’”
Danny jerked his head up. It was as if his stomach had dropped out from under him. Like the first hill on a roller coaster. “What did you say?”
“When I got there, that’s what the EMT told me. Dead on impact. She didn’t suffer. She probably had no idea what had happened.”
“What the hell are you talking about Mike?”
“She was my daughter, Danny.”
Danny was speechless. He sat still for a moment, and then started shaking his head violently. “No! Fuck you, Mike. Her father is dead. I followed the story in the papers. He killed himself two months after the accident. Got drunk and drove into a bridge abutment. Why the hell would you even say something like that?”
Mike had tears welling up in the corners of his eyes. “Because now I know, Danny. Now I know that you are repentant.”
“Fuck you, Mike. How can you pull this shit on me? How can you even say something like that? Do you think that this is a joke? Well, fuck you.”
Danny stormed away, sobbing, and walked toward the church. Ralph had arrived and was walking in himself. He noticed how upset Danny was and stopped him, grabbing his shoulders and turning his=m around somewhat forcefully.
“Danny! What’s wrong? What’s going on?”
“That asshole. I told him, Ralph. I told him The One Thing, and do you know what he said?”
“Slow down, Danny,” said Ralph. “If you’re ready, why don’t you tell me what The One Thing is first.”
His secret no longer a secret, he told Ralph exactly what he had told Mike. “And he said that he’s her father! And he forgives me! That dick!”
“Who, Danny? Who?”
“Mike. That idiot who’s been harassing me.”
“Where is he, Danny? Is he here? I’ll talk to him.”
Danny turned and pointed at the bench. “He’s right… He was sitting with me right there.”
Ralph cocked his head. “Danny, are you okay?”
“No, I’m upset, and with good reason. I just told him The One Thing, and he goes and says that?”
Ralph’s brow wrinkled with concern. “Danny, I’ve been here for ten minutes waiting for you to go inside. I saw you sitting there on the bench talking to yourself, and thought that you needed some alone time. You were alone the whole time, Danny.”
Danny scanned the parking lot. No battered, green Honda. He started to breath heavily, and pulled out his phone. He scrolled through his call log – all of the calls he had made and received. All of the texts. Nothing. The only call in the last three days was the one he had made to Ralph that same morning. There was one text message waiting in his inbox. It had no number associated with it.
“I forgive you Danny.”
Credit: Kenneth Kohl
“This actually happened to my friend’s uncle’s roommate. I swear.”
Chloe looks at me skeptically. One eyebrow rose smartly, but she was smiling.
“Chris Thompson, you are full of shit,” She laughs.
“No, I swear to God… this is a true story. This guy and his girlfriend were out on an abandoned country road, making out in their car. Suddenly, a radio announcement came on, saying that there was a killer that had escaped a nearby asylum.”
“Chris… all asylums were either shut down or abandoned by the end of the 1960’s.”
I ignored here and went on. I knew that my story must be scaring her at least a little bit, considering how easily frightened she was. I began to lower my voice, making it sound creepy and even slightly demonic in order to punch up the dramatic tone.
“The announcement said that the inmate was armed with a knife, and he had a hook in place of his left hand. The boy wanted to stay where they were, but the girl insisted that they leave and go home after hearing a strange scratching sound on her side of the car door. So the boy takes off.”
Chloe rolls her beautiful violet eyes. “Let me guess… when they get home there’s a hook attached to the girl’s side of the car door.”
I balked in false surprise and looked at her suspiciously. “Shit… how did you know?”
“Everybody’s heard that old urban legend Chris. You’re going to have to try harder than that if you really want to scare me.”
Personally, I thought the tale suited the mood perfectly. Considering I was walking her home alone at night on a forsaken country road after a wild party at a friend’s house. Chloe began to shiver in the frigid winter air as a gust of wind tore through the trees. I hurriedly took off my coat and offered it to her, as I did every time I saw her discomfort, but as usual she refused me, and walked on.
“You can’t tell me that didn’t scare you a little bit.”
She hesitates momentarily before answering, “No way Chris, you can’t freak me out with your pathetic horror stories.”
I knew she was lying, but didn’t press the matter, and instead reached into my pocket absentmindedly and felt for the cool metal of my lighter. I brought it out as well as a cigarette from my special case and lit up in the near darkness that the streetlights were doing little to pierce. I admired how the flame shone against Chloe’s copper hair.
My friends had seen little in Chloe, being more interested in blondes with hefty breasts, but to me she had always seemed perfect, with the proper amount of knowledge and intelligence to even out her petite curves. We had started dating in our sophomore year, and had been going steady ever since. She wanted to be a doctor, and me a lawyer, so we conspired to go to the same college.
When she got an email announcing that she had been accepted into the UNC School of Medicine, one of the best colleges in North Carolina, and certainly the best colleges anywhere near Blackwood, where we both lived, she had stepped down, declining to go unless I was accepted also. When I was not, she stuck to her word and started making new college submissions.
I would have done the same thing for her.
She sees what I am doing and slaps my arm playfully. I know she hates it when I smoke, and it’s something I’ve been trying to give up lately, with her help, of course.
“Chris, I’m not going to kiss you goodnight if you have shitty breath,” She giggles.
In mock horror I yank the cigarette from between my teeth and stamp it out on the concrete.
“Will you kiss me now?” I ask playfully. “Of course.” She whispers, and brings me into a loving embrace, pressing her lips against mine. I run my fingers through her frizzy hair before tracing them down her back. She feels so warm against me…
That’s when we both hear it, at the same time, the subtle scrape of feet against the mortar of the road. Chloe breaks away from my hold and grasps my arm tightly, cutting of circulation in mere seconds. My blood freezes as I see the outline of a figure, approaching us in the dark from about a few feet ahead in the road.
I cast a protective arm around Chloe and back up slowly. She is surreptitiously reaching in her bag where I know she keeps a canister of pepper spray in case of emergencies. We say not a word, too frightened to speak as someone or something shuffles closer. My jaw quivering, I open my mouth and force out the words; “Hello? Who is that?”
We are met only with silence as the figure moves closer. He appears to have some sort of injury to his leg. His steps are misshapen. Although I cannot see, I can hear his movements in the dark. One leg moves forward steadily, and the other is dragged up to meet its partner. That’s when the smell hits me. The horrible stench of what can only be described as rot and death. I feel vomit rising in my throat as the vile aroma breaches my nostrils, and beside me Chloe gags violently.
Then the thing that had remained in the shadows until now steps below a streetlamp, and he is bathed in white light. Chloe lets out an earsplitting scream of terror, and I open my mouth to cry out as well, but all that comes out is a thin croak. I can only stare in absolute dread at the thing standing not ten feet before me.
It appeared to be a male, whatever it was. Half of its face had been ripped clean off. The flesh hanging from its profile dripped a greenish red liquid of what I could only assume was a mixture of blood and oozing pus. The white of his skull was visible, and it gleamed underneath, its teeth sneering at me with a grotesque and otherworldly smile. The half of its face that was not torn from his head was encrusted in thick layers of gore, making whoever or whatever this atrocity was unrecognizable. The clothes it had on, what appeared to be a white shirt and shorts, were also sanguine and tattered horribly, as if some great beast had tried to eat him but ultimately spit him out. As he took another step forward I saw with extreme revulsion that his leg was broken. It was bent at an awkward angle near the knee, and I could see the bone poking out through the skin.
I grabbed Chloe and pulled her backwards, grabbing her purse and rummaging inside, never taking my eyes off the thing until I had the pepper spray in my hands. It reached out his decaying arms, fingers quivering. A dreadful moan escaped its mouth, no, it’s jaw. It made a series of incoherent noises that gurgled from its rotting throat, as if it were trying to speak… With my heart pounding fast in my chest and my legs weak with fear, I held the pepper spray out in front of us, pushing Chloe behind me.
“Don’t come any fucking closer! Don’t move, stop where you are!”
I yelled at the thing loudly, trying to sound brave. It didn’t do any good, he just kept hobbling closer and closer to us, and I was backing up, my hand shaking aggressively. He continued to groan inarticulately, more frantically. He started to come toward us faster. I had no choice, I raised the pepper spray and stepped in close, thrusting my thumb down on the nozzle as hard as I could and sending a jet of liquid pain right into the eyes of the monster.
No effect. The pepper spray was virtually useless. The thing just kept lumbering forward with its arms outstretched, garbling incomprehensible words.
Then I was able to make out one single word that it was saying.
The deepest and most severe kind of fear rose in my chest. Expanding inside me like a balloon. It knows me! It knows us! Jesus Christ, somehow it knows who we are!
I lunged forward quickly and shoved the thing backwards with both palms, hard. It tried to grab me as it went down but I jerked my hands back as if I had touched something with a grievous disease attached to it. Its skin felt spongy and raw underneath that ripped shirt, and it toppled backwards, landing on the pavement with a sickening schlock.
“Run!” I shouted, and, clutching Chloe’s arm as hard as I dared, I took off, sprinting around and past that despicable creature which was now unleashing an inhuman howl, and attempting to get to its feet.
I was still running when the truck hit me.
Chloe saw it coming. She was looking ahead. I was peering backwards, trying to see the creature in the darkness. I had the bizarre fear that it would give chase in the obscurity of the late hours.
Then everything became unbearably bright. Chloe had let go of my arm and dove out of the way. She was screaming my name. I turned around to find myself face to face with a white Dodge that was speeding around a tight wind ahead in the road.
It was too late, and too dark to see me.
There was a shriek of the brakes, but not before I had been hit by the front bumper and fallen underneath the tires.
Agony as I had never knew it before rolled over me like a tidal wave. My face was completely lacerated by the front tires, and I let out an unearthly wail as I felt my leg break. Every part of my body hurt. The last thing I remember before everything went black was Chloe kneeling over my body, tears streaming down her cheeks as she tried to apply pressure everywhere I was bleeding on my torso.
I woke up. I was lying in the middle of the road, alone.
Everything was numb. Nothing hurt at all. The pain that I had endured what seemed like seconds before was gone. Although, when I looked down upon myself, I saw that I still had all my injuries.
Something was terribly wrong here…
Where the hell was Chloe?
Everything seemed so alone and desolate without her at my side. I needed her.
I decided I would have to try and get to my feet. To my surprise, there was no sudden flare of pain that forced me back to the ground. My whole body felt anesthetized, and, although it felt strange to get to stand up, I was able to do it without much trouble at all.
I stared down at the road before me in confusion. There were no traces of blood, no tire marks, and no sign whatsoever of the accident that had surely occurred. My mind was swimming. What could possibly have happened here?
I staggered forwards. I knew that I would have to get to a hospital. Everything would be explained to me there.
I set out in the direction of the party that I and Chloe had left. It was surely still going strong, and I could call an ambulance once I got there. I was expecting the task of walking to be difficult and painful just as I had expected the challenge of getting up to be demanding. But again, everything was easy as could be, with the exception of having to drag my broken leg around.
I had made it about a hundred yards before I heard voices ahead. I began to walk faster. They could help me; they could call the ambulance that I so obviously needed. As I came closer, bit by bit, I began to make out their voices.
“Chris, I’m not going to kiss you goodnight if you have shitty breath,”
I froze. I knew that voice all too well. It belonged to Chloe. There was a momentary pause in which I heard the scratch against pavement that indicated a cigarette had just been stamped out by someone’s shoe.
“Will you kiss me now?”
My voice, that was my voice… she was talking to me in some sort of twisted paradox… what the hell was going on?
I only barely caught Chloe’s whisper through the wind.
It all became clear to me, devastatingly clear. I had to tell them about my own imminent death before it was too late!
I shuffled forwards quickly, opening my mouth and filling it with the cool Carolinian air. Preparing to say what I had to. Chloe and I were undoubtedly backing up now, reaching for that canister of pepper spray as they heard my footsteps emanating from the dark.
Then there came my own voice.
“Hello? Who is that?”
I keep going forward. Once I see myself I will be recognized, I thought to myself.
I was very much mistaken. As I move into the light of the streetlamp Chloe lets out a horrified scream. The other me whips out the pepper spray and holds it out in front of him menacingly, even though I can see from the shake of his arm that he is fearful.
I try to form the words to explain what was happening, but all that comes out is a mess of distorted gurgling sounds from deep within my throat… when the truck ran over me it must have destroyed my vocal cords.
I tried harder and harder to talk but everything I try to say to the other me is incomprehensible.
“Don’t come any fucking closer! Don’t move, stop where you are!”
When I continue to advance he steps in close and unleashes the pepper spray right in my face. There is, of course, no effect. Shock shows in his frightened features. I continue trying to talk to him, more desperately this time.
Please, I try to say, do this for Chloe. Try to understand for Chloe. You have a life with her. I have a life with her. Don’t waste it here and now.
That’s when I see the unmistakable terror in his eyes. He makes a sudden move forward, shoving me down onto the concrete. My already broken leg lands in a delicate position as he takes off running, dragging Chloe close behind him.
I make an attempt to get up, to follow, but it is for nothing. My leg is damaged beyond repair and I am unable to try to warn him any longer.
I give free rein to a roar of anguish that echoes throughout the area. But in the end, I can do nothing but listen to the squeal of the brakes in the distance before everything goes black.